- Maximilian, Mexico, and the Invention of Empire
Kristine Ibsen’s Maximilian, Mexico, and the Invention of Empire is an outstanding book about visual culture that focuses on representations of empire in public spectacle, art, film, and literature. The ill-fated French Intervention financed by Napoleon III and the short-lived Second Empire under the Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria have been the subject of a number of noteworthy historical studies, but to date no literary scholar has undertaken a comprehensive interdisciplinary approach. In this volume Ibsen tells well-rounded stories about the cultural texts that respond to a particular historical moment of Benjaminian crisis and the artists who call attention to deceptive representations of social reality [End Page 144] foisted upon an unsuspecting public by state apparatuses. She begins with a brief historical overview of the Second Empire for the uninitiated that will allow any reader to jump into the chapters without consulting other meaty historical works. This introduction not only tells the story of Maximilian’s ephemeral imperial dream but also outlines the central themes of her book: the performative nature of empire, the role cultural representations play constructing and dismantling empire, and how visual texts demand “an active engagement that transforms observers and readers into spectators, witnesses, and ultimately, participants” (10).
The opening chapters of the book read like a gripping cultural history framed within an intelligent and rigorous theoretical framework. The first offers a detailed analysis of Maximilian’s public affairs campaign to legitimate the empire’s claim to power through public ceremony, dressing up, and mass-produced carte-de-visite portraits as well as liberal resistance through popular poetry and cartoons. In the second chapter, Ibsen situates Édouard Manet at the vanguard of late nineteenth-century artists for whom new visual technologies and advances in mass production changed the way art, as a social artifact, was perceived (52). Placing the Execution of Maximilian within the context of a French empire struggling to maintain its legitimacy through artistic representations that strongly favored the official narrative, Ibsen demonstrates how Manet’s ambiguous and, therefore, dangerous perspectival distortion, fragmentation, and lack of closure “force the spectator to adopt a critical attitude” to both the painting and the Bonapartist regime (68). The third chapter discusses the political implications of mainstream film by studying the anti-Nazi orientation of William Dieterle’s 1939 film Juárez. Filmed during the precarious years when the United States attempted to maintain neutrality in European affairs, the scriptwriters and filmmakers who worked on Juárez cloaked their critique of German expansionism with a rigorously researched historical treatment of the French Intervention in Mexico. Ibsen demonstrates how Dieterle drew parallels between the past and the present by inserting familiar phrases from contemporary headlines into the script in such a manner that no one would miss the association between Napoleon III’s racist rant that opens the film and the anti-Semite discourse of German nationalism. The film’s appeal to familiar iconography, she argues, allowed audiences to clearly perceive in Benito Juárez, who was overtly portrayed as small and ugly, a double resemblance to Lincoln and Roosevelt in their triumphs over prejudice, infirmity, and social otherness.
The fourth chapter deals with Fernando del Paso’s Noticias del imperio and reads like a more traditional literary analysis than any of the preceding chapters. Here Ibsen argues that the novel’s modernist aesthetics, multiple narrative voices, and metafictional self-conscience expose fissures in the teleological discourse of historiography and demonstrate that “historical representation and meaning itself are . . . unstable constructs, imaginatively distorted and sometimes even reinvented by the ever-changing perspectives of time and space from which they are read” (126). At the argumentative level, the thesis of this chapter is clear and well supported. And yet, after drinking in the rich contextual detail of the previous chapters, I was left wanting a little more. Ibsen takes for granted a prior degree of familiarity with del Paso’s life and writing that most readers simply do not have. She says nothing [End Page 145] about how author’s...